Police had strong indications--a chilling modus operandi, even composite drawings--six years ago that a man later dubbed the “Cottonwood Pervert” was preying on woman across Orange County.
Most residents, however, found out only Tuesday what detectives had long suspected: A serial rapist may have been prowling in their midst since 1987.
Kenneth G. Wade, a 45-year-old Temecula pool hall manager and sometime jeweler, was arrested on rape charges last week, and police now say he is a suspect in at least 86 sex crimes and burglaries across the county.
Police officials on Wednesday defended their decision not to issue broad public warnings about either the intruder or the number of unsolved cases--alerts that some experts say might have heightened public awareness and helped flush out the suspect sooner.
There is “definitely a possibility” that the public should have been warned earlier, Santa Ana Lt. Robert Helton conceded.
“I think there’s a certain weighing that you’re doing there: If there’s a lot of exposure, would that drive him underground?” Helton said. “If we would have had a stronger idea of who the perpetrator was, we could have done that with the hope that we could have apprehended him pretty quickly. . . . We just never had any luck fall our way.”
Helton and other investigators say their case seemed to evaporate in 1990 when the bespectacled, often nude intruder with the droopy mustache mysteriously disappeared. They lost him, police now say, because Wade was in state prison.
When the flashing, burglary and rape began anew in 1993, police say, they knew their man was back in business. At a meeting last year, investigators from at least half a dozen cities linked the intruder to unsolved crimes in neighborhoods all over the county.
“I can understand how the public can say, ‘Why weren’t we told?’ ” said Orange Police Chief John R. Robertson, in whose city Wade is suspected of committing 32 crimes, including one rape. “But there’s a lot of guys out there. . . . We try to prioritize the best that we can. Usually when we feel that there is a significant danger to the public we do a push to go public.”
Robertson’s department warned one neighborhood, alerting Cottonwood Street residents last year that a flasher in a black watch cap and usually nothing else had crept into the unlocked homes of at least 10 women. Residents dubbed the intruder the Cottonwood Pervert and formed Neighborhood Watch groups.
But there was no countywide alert for the intruder, who is suspected of prowling in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange, Placentia, Tustin, Garden Grove and Fullerton.
“I think the police should have notified everyone, so people would know what’s going on,” said Ilssa Rodriguez, an Anaheim resident who was stunned to learn that the intruder had attacked a neighbor last month. “It’s scary because I had no idea anything like this was going on.”
Michael Prudan, a special agent with the state Department of Justice, said alerting the public in serial cases often leads to an arrest.
“I can’t think of a time when we didn’t think it would accomplish something,” said Prudan, who specializes in profiling serial criminals. Providing a description of an assailant alerts those closest to the suspect. “They say, ‘Not only does that look like my Uncle John, it sounds like my Uncle John. I’d better call in,’ ” Prudan said.
But Robertson and other police officials said the varying nature of the crimes and the suspect’s changing manner of disguise made it hard to be certain it was the same intruder countywide. They said they also feared alerting the public might cause the suspect to move to another area or change his style.
Police investigators said the biggest problem came in piecing together the cases to put a face, and now a name, on the suspect. It was a process, Helton said, that began in Santa Ana around 1987 when Detective Linda Faust discovered that several of her rape and indecent-exposure cases started with earlier burglaries at the victims’ homes.
“She would handle a sexual assault case . . . where there was a robbery at same address months earlier where jewelry was stolen,” Helton said. “All of a sudden when she was talking to the victims they would say this guy had commented to them that he had been there before.”
In 1989, detectives from Placentia, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Tustin, Anaheim and the Sheriff’s Department began noticing similarities between their cases at a sex crimes meeting, where they listed details of the attacks in their own cities on butcher paper pinned to the wall, recalled Placentia Detective Corinne Loomis, who was handling two cases from the previous year in that city.
“We knew then that this guy was hitting areas outside of our city,” Loomis said. “And he kept hitting. He just prowled the area.”
Loomis was already investigating the case of a 19-year-old gas station attendant who said she was sexually battered by a man who entered the front door of the business and grabbed her in June, 1988.
“He then threw her down and groped her,” Loomis said.
Two weeks later, an intruder matching the same description entered through the bedroom window of a woman who was six months’ pregnant. “She told him that she was pregnant, he said OK and left,” Loomis said. “But she got a description of him.”
Investigators said the intruder was probably watching some of his victims before breaking into their homes, because in one case he entered a bedroom expecting one woman and was faced with another, Loomis said.
“He was expecting A and got B,” she said. “So he left.”
In other cases, he would enter by knocking on a door and attacking the resident who answered, Loomis said. He was not consistent, detectives said, and he never left a fingerprint.
The man also wore a variety of baseball caps, hats, ski masks or different colored bandannas tied around his forehead. Sometimes he tied a T-shirt across his face, sometimes he wore clothes, sometimes nothing at all. But he always wore prescription glasses with varying frames, police said.
But the group of investigators were able to link at least 12 rapes between 1987 and 1989 to the same person, using physical evidence that included shoe prints, notes and blood tests, authorities said. His targets included hairstylists, cashiers, secretaries and young mothers, many of whom lived in apartment complexes or condominiums, detectives said.
Orange Lt. Timm Browne said several attempts were made in Orange to catch the intruder during the late 1980s, but “every time a station was set up at one end [of the neighborhood], he’d hit at the other end.”
Santa Ana and Orange police came up with a progressive series of composite drawings based on the different descriptions of the man. In both cities, police say, patrol officers alerted home associations and neighborhood residents where the man struck repeatedly.
“There was public awareness,” Helton said. “We didn’t want to put too much fear and scare anybody.” Officials also wanted to prevent a flood of calls to police “every time someone strange walked down the street,” Helton said.
When the crimes dropped off in 1990, he said, police were uncertain whether to breathe a sigh of relief or sleep uneasily.
“There’s a certain weight off your shoulders, but you think, ‘Is this forever or is this just a break?’ ” Helton said. “You’re just kind of waiting. . . . Of course, he gets out of jail in 1993 and these types of things start occurring again.”
Patrol officers were again on the alert. Orange assigned a group of people to trap its serial flasher. Alerted by police, a Cottonwood apartment complex put out a flyer warning: “If you see this man, ‘the flasher,’ immediately call 911 and tell the operator you have seen the Cottonwood Pervert.”
Every time a new report was filed it hit Santa Ana Detective Faust like a rebuke, Helton said. She knew it was him.
The basic pattern remained the same, police said, but the intruder seemed to have gotten bolder.
“There were times in some of the indecent-exposure cases, he would just walk up to the door totally nude and knock on the door and people would open the door and he would be nude,” Helton said. “It was not uncommon for him to be nude in a substantial number of contacts with people. I don’t know where he put his clothes.”
In most cases, investigators said, the intruder would simply stake out a busy neighborhood thick with apartments and watch to see a woman carelessly leave a window open or a door unlocked.
“In some cases it would be masturbation, in some cases it would just be standing there,” Robertson said. “We also had the guy come in and grab women’s breasts.”
In Orange, the indecent-exposure cases mounted and police bulletins started including similar cases in Santa Ana.
Frustrated sexual assault investigators from around the county met again last year, and came to the same conclusion they had five years earlier: They were again chasing the same man.
“I can’t say that the light switch lit up for everyone at the same time,” Helton said. “There are little quirks and differences in perhaps in some of the cases. Sometimes he would commit just a burglary and sometimes he would just commit indecent exposure.”
Then on July 25, about 10 Anaheim undercover detectives and officers and a criminal analyst got lucky. The group fanned out to four different locations where the slender, hazel-eyed intruder had returned to homes of victims he had previously either burglarized or flashed, said Anaheim Lt. Joe Reiss, who arrested Wade.
On a tip from another officer, Reiss said he went to a neighborhood at Park Vista Street and Jackson Avenue, where an intruder had entered the home of a woman earlier that day and attempted to rape her.
“She fought him off, he got scared and ran away,” Reiss said.
Reiss was driving in the area when he saw a man in a white Honda Accord matching descriptions of the intruder, who had also threatened others in the area that day.
Earlier, the intruder was chased away by a boyfriend, and one woman got rid of him by hitting him over the head with a tape dispenser. In another case, he chased a woman who ran into her apartment and locked him out, Reiss said.
“This guy was really determined to do something that night,” Reiss said. “Fortunately, he wasn’t able to before we got to him.”
Times staff writers Diane Seo and Michael G. Granberry contributed to this report.